Lawmakers pivot in response to a pandemic
The Vermont Senate in session on June 26, via Zoom.

Lawmakers pivot in response to a pandemic

For one state senator, the COVID-19 challenge reinforced her belief that local government officials should be given more independence to make decisions that affect their communities

PUTNEY — It has been 4{1/2} months since we left the State House to begin doing our work remotely. During the 3{1/2} months we met remotely, we originally focused our work on COVID-19 issues.

In the Senate Committee on Government Operations, we had much work to do very quickly. We worked with Vermont League of Cities and Towns to modify statutes to allow town government to continue to function. We addressed laws affecting open meetings, local elections, access to public records, property-tax issues, and other areas where the state regulates what municipalities are allowed to do.

For me, this challenge reinforced my belief that local government officials should be given more independence to make decisions that affect their communities.

We worked with our emergency medical services to ensure their survival through the pandemic, creating new systems that would allow them to recruit and train personnel, giving them more flexibility in funding, and addressing other issues. While we did not solve the issue of their long-term sustainability, we did make some immediate changes to their benefit.

We addressed the issue of the primary and general elections. We also spent a lot of time working with the other committees around the budget for the CRF (COVID-19 relief funds).

We also continued our work on law enforcement reform. While there are some who claim that we did not do anything to address this and judicial reform before the pandemic made it necessary, this is untrue. We have been working on these issues for some time. We heard from anyone who cared to weigh in on training issues, discipline, body cameras, data collection, recruitment, and other topics.

The major bill - S.124 - now resides in the House Government Operations Committee, and from there, we hope it will be passed and become law.

* * *

We continued our work on systemic racism in state government by working with many folks, primarily with Xusana Davis, the executive director of the Racial Equity Advisory Panel that was formed three years ago. This work continues as we look at our state systems and how they affect various communities, including communities of color, of low-income, and of those whose first language is not English.

One of the issues we worked on was the census.

We worked with the U.S. census folks and heard from communities that might be somewhat hesitant to complete the census forms: people of color, elderly people, those with disabilities, undocumented workers, new Americans, people with low incomes, those receiving state or federal benefits, to name a few examples. The census people were open to working directly with advocates in these communities to promote the census.

It is disheartening to know that Vermont in general is so far behind in responding - it ranks sixth-lowest in response rate - and that Windham County in particular is way, way behind, with only about 50 percent having responded.

Each person counted in the census represents about $4,000 in federal dollars each year for the next 10 years. I am not a mathematician, but I believe that this means that if that statistic holds, lack of participation by folks in Windham County will cost Vermont about $80 million a year for the next 10 years. That is a lot of money to help with food insecurity, housing, business development, infrastructure, and other problems.

So please do your part - complete the census survey. You can do so at, or you can have a paper copy sent to you.

* * *

Another issue that we addressed was the inability for people to search land records due to town offices closed because of the pandemic. These closures had an impact on people buying and selling homes and on those who felt that refinancing would be essential to getting them through this crisis.

Access to the land records is essential. We set aside some of the state's federal Coronavirus Relief Fund revenue to help towns digitize their records. Towns may now apply for available funding; you can find the requirements and application forms at

* * *

There has been a lot of controversy about the election and how to keep it safe from interference. We have an elections director in the secretary of state's office, and we have town clerks in all of our towns who are dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the election while allowing everyone to vote safely.

In November, ballots will be mailed to all active voters. Each voter may choose what to do with that ballot. It can be mailed (the return envelope requires no postage), it can be dropped at your town clerk's office, or it can be brought to the polls on Election Day.

I cannot comment too much on other states except to say that the five states that have been mailing ballots for years have not experienced fraud. And we do not have widespread fraud here in Vermont. Of course, there are always the few exceptions thrown around, but they are just that - exceptions - and our town clerks do not have many examples of fraud.

So please vote. It is perhaps the biggest responsibility of everyone in a democracy.

While people feel their vote might not count, and while our system is not perfect, it does count. There are many examples. I am actually one - I won my first primary by 26 votes - and I thank every single person who felt their vote mattered.

We will be reconvening, remotely or in person, on Aug. 26 to continue the work of this session and to prepare a full-year budget. It will be hard work - we are already looking at a $200 million shortfall.

Let us know what you are concerned with and your thoughts on the budget and other issues. We will get back to you, even though it takes time as we have no staff and many constituents and work to be done.

But we will read and listen to what you have to say.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates